Children and youths who are homeless face considerable challenges today, and, according to many studies, also later in life.
Because of their lack of stability and frequent moves, they have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems such as depression, anxiety, aggression, withdrawal, sleep disorder and even PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), reports the Urban Institute.
Homeless kids are twice as likely to go hungry as their not homeless counterparts, the National Center on Family Homelessness notes.
They are more than twice as likely to repeat a grade in school, be suspended, expelled or drop out of high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Children without homes often suffer from health difficulties and are less likely to have access to medical and dental care. This results in low birth weight, malnutrition, ear infections, exposure to environmental toxins, cavities and gum disease, and chronic illnesses.
One-quarter of children who are homeless have witnessed violence, which can cause serious psychosocial difficulties. Exposure to violence at a young age can also be a precursor to future violent behavior in teens and adults, states the American Psychological Association.
And the stress of being homeless can actually lead to changes in a child’s brain development, according to recent research. This can interfere not only with learning, but also emotional self-regulation, cognitive skills and social relationships.
So what’s being done to stop this?
Not much, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
In its 2014 report, “America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness,” the agency sounded a gloomy conclusion: “While progress has been made in reducing homelessness among veterans and chronically homeless individuals, no special attention has been directed toward homeless children, and their numbers have increased.”
Skid Row’s changing demographics
These research findings don’t surprise Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles’ Skid Row — a 54-square-block area where the nation’s largest concentration of homeless individuals live. “We’re seeing as many and more families with children than we saw during the Great Recession,” he told me this month. “So we are just overwhelmed with families and children.”
The 125-year-old mission on South San Pedro Street has run out of large rooms that normally house families. So they’re sleeping in the community room on cots. Single women are bedding down in the chapel and the guest area downstairs.
“And when I say ‘single ladies,’ people need to understand I’m talking about moms who lost everything, then lost their kids, and now are in a shelter on Skid Row,” Bales pointed out. “So these are ladies who have really been devastated by homelessness.”
This time last year, 168 single women called the Union Rescue Mission their home; today their number has spiked to more than 350 with 130 kids. Hope Gardens, the mission’s long-term residence for families in Sylmar, is so full that 15 more units for permanent supportive “sober” units are being built. Right now, there’s 130 children at Hope Gardens, too.
And the CEO is desperately looking for a “satellite” place in South Los Angles for moms with kids. “But if the county offers us a building somewhere else,” he acknowledged with a chuckle, “we’ll go wherever there’s a building.”
Bales said the emphasis on providing permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless adults by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been narrow-minded. “It’s focused all the resources on a few while leaving the many, including thousands of children, on the street,” he pointed out. “And studies show and experts agree — not just me — that chronic homeless adults on the street today were chronically homeless and impoverished children of yesteryear.
“So that tells you, right? That these chronically homeless and impoverished children of today are going to be tomorrow’s chronic homeless adults. So my fear is all of this policy is going to backfire. There are 17,000 families on welfare on CalWorks in L.A. County facing homelessness — 17,000 families! That represents at least 35,000 kids. So that alone — forget about any homeless count —tells you there’s 35,000 kids at risk of being the next generation of chronic homeless.”
After a moment, he warned, “We haven’t seen anything yet regarding chronic homelessness if we don’t address the needs of these children. We’ve got to rescue the kids from the devastation of homelessness. It destroys them physically and psychologically and mentally and socially and education-wise. It really takes away many of their [life] chances.”
Bales knows from his own family’s history the lasting, deep scars of homelessness. His father, Carl, was without a home, off and on, from age 4 to 17. From his hometown near Des Moines, Iowa, he and his dad (Andy’s grandfather) would often jump on a freight car, the boy holding on to his dad’s neck for dear life.
“At 17, my dad took his own mom in from the streets,” said the head of the Union Rescue Mission. “And his last week on the earth, all he could talk about was the devastation of experiencing homelessness. I mean, he just poured out to me the hurt that he still had from showing up at school and being called the kid who was homeless and, you know, feeling less than worthy about himself.
“Somehow he made it. [Rising from a laborer to vice-president of a Midwest feed company.] I don’t know how he made it, if you heard the stories about his childhood and family. But he was still haunted by what happened as a child.” And his voice lowered to almost a whisper. “Some kids don’t make it.”
Bales said his dad’s homeless history influenced why he went into mission work — first in Des Moines, then Pasadena and for the last 12 years at the Union Rescue Mission. “Well, it’s part of why I have compassion for people experiencing homeless,” he said. “It’s why I relate to people who are experiencing homelessness. Every kid I see here, I see my dad in them. And they can become something.”
Future homelessness “indicator”
Nicky Viola is the senior project manager of the Shelter Partnership. Established in 1985, the nonprofit works to solve homelessness in Los Angeles County through policy analysis, program design, resource development and advocacy to support agencies and local governments serving the homeless. One of her projects has been working with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LASHA) on “point of entry systems” for families.
She said the problems kids who are homeless face has been well-documented. These include educational problems, mental and physical health issues, and developmental delays. “So it really runs the gamut, for sure,” she pointed out. “Those are mostly physical things, but there’s also emotional harm.”
Viola agreed with Bales that if some serious intervention isn’t done today with homeless children, they’re likely to become homeless adults.
“Studies have been done on how that is an indicator of future homelessness,” she explained. “But it’s hard to put your finger on any one thing. There’s all different causes of homelessness, various factors.”
She said many of these research studies have focused on homeless prevention and how to target families to catch them before a family actually becomes homeless. “And that has proven to be difficult to pinpoint, like what exact factors make one family become homeless and another family not. But a history of homelessness is one of the factors. It’s deep poverty. But you see families who are maybe not homeless but in deep poverty. And it’s hard to break out of poverty also.”
But one thing stands out in Los Angeles today — the fact that housing is so expensive and there are so few affordable apartments. She said the grants to families receiving CalWORKS, the state’s welfare program, are very low. So low that even if a single mom also has a part-time job, there’s no way she can afford housing here.
“It’s a really difficult situation,” she pointed out. “Even families who are fortunate enough to have a Section 8 voucher, which used to be the goal and still is, are having trouble finding units to rent. It’s a problem among all homeless populations: veterans and the chronically homeless.
“It’s a huge problem,” said the Shelter Partnership manager, “and it’s not going away immediately. There’s no magic bullet. For families with kids, it’s especially dire.”
In 1996, a Sister of St. Joseph of Corondelet helped start Alexandria House, a transitional home for homeless women with children in Koreatown. And she’s been its director even since. The average stay for families is a year, but that can be extended to two or more.
“God bless the Union Rescue Mission,” said Sister Judy Vaughn. “I just have great respect for what Andy’s trying to do on Skid Row. And we refer families to go there when we’re full, which is most of the time these days. But it’s a struggle to get them to go down there, there’s so much going on. So we really encourage them to just ‘Get through the door!’ Because they have great case managers who will help them up and begin to put in place resources. But, you know, there’s not enough resources anywhere.”
She pointed out how lots of the families Alexandria House serves have already had traumatic experiences, mainly domestic violence and human trafficking. “So many of our kids either witnessed or experienced domestic violence,” she said. “So that in itself is a traumatic experience.”
In Sister Judy’s experience, even for families who didn’t become homeless because of some terrible happening, many are still dealing with the stress a mom feels when she’s not sure where her children are going to sleep.
“So, yes, what we see on the kids is stress and worse. Because with this new ‘rapid rehousing,’ if you can’t find a place in three months, you’re supposed to move to another shelter. It’s hard on kids. They may want to do excellent in school, but then they’re pulled out because the mom’s needing to move to another place. It’s so disruptive. That’s why we won’t do it. We won’t do that model,” she said.
Last year, funding cuts by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority for HUD cost Alexandria House $86,000 and more than $30,000 from United Way. But Sister Judy stressed that no single-parent family can adjust from the trauma of being homeless in 90 days. Moreover, there’s the ongoing local housing crisis that only seems to worsen every year.
“We have 600 calls a month for 10 family places in our two houses,” she reported. “And the new thing we hear is, ‘We’re sleeping in my car.’ We’ve had a pregnant woman call sleeping in her car. We had a mom with a newborn. We had a mom with three teenagers. I mean, it’s really bad right now for women with children.”
After a while, the women religious who has a Ph.D. in social ethics, said, “The hardest part of the work here is when we don’t have the space or resources to help these woman and children. But once a family’s in, we try our very, very best to make sure they’re able to move from here into permanent housing for however long it takes.”
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